Transparency

JUNE 2008
DAR ES SALAAM
 
 
I am sitting in an internet café in a mall, looking out of the glass front at the people who walk past.  It’s the first time in months that I’ve seen a glazed window, let alone a wall like this, and it’s weird.
 
The passing people are almost inaudible.  I can’t hear the rise in their voices as they approach or the weight of their steps.  I can’t smell whether they’re stressed or overly-perfumed, or feel the air press against me as they draw past.  For the first time in months the visual environment is not in keeping with my other senses.  It’s profoundly unsettling.  I am compelled to watch because I have no other way of knowing what is happening, who is there, a few feet from me.  No chance to interact, to greet people, to be equals.  To feel secure behind a transparent barrier we must be spectators or risk being the spectacle.
 
 
 
 
 
I could reasonably be a spectacle here.  This is the domain of the upper classes, the cultural elite, finely dressed.  I am worn out, still in my field clothes.  Like my body, they are dirty and torn.  I am out of place.  This is not a world in which transparency is a proxy for openness.  The mall is highly secured.  There are guards at the supermarket entrance; bags must be left outside, in lockers.  I am allowed only because I, like the mall, like the glass, am a legacy of colonial culture in a post-colonial country. 
 
Transparency, in theory, allows people to see in full the workings of the entity behind the glass.  The assumption which has led to the propagation of transparency as a political and built vocabulary is that the in-lookers, so informed, will be able to provoke changes from their external position.  Transparency thus is portrayed to have  the same effect as openness.  Whether this equation is fair depends whether you believe the people on the outside have the power to make changes. When they do, transparency effects openness.  When they do not, transparency is a deception.  Visual access, information, serves as a proxy to placate the disenfranchised.  The deception here is candid.
 
A wedding party, extended family, gathers in the shiny hall of the mall.  This is where they have chosen to come for photographs – so contemporary, so sophisticated, so Western, all this glass and smooth cleanness and shops.  The irony: what Westerner would share their choice? 
The group coalesces and splinters, groups and regroups, poses.  Cameras are vehicles of transparency: they create visual environments which exist independent of other senses.  They reduce us to viewers.  Every window is a screen. 
 
When a window is placed in the wall, it is self-evidently a screen.  It says: here is a view.  It is like a picture, or maybe  a film.  Look, look out here! A glass wall is the spread of this vocabulary.  No longer one, focussed view: we are living in a filmic world. 
 
I sit behind the glass and watch the people as they walk past.